What Does It Mean to Be a Writer?

A female writer at a desk
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A writer is:

(a) a person who writes (articles, stories, books, etc.);

(b) an author: a person who writes professionally. In the words of author and editor Sol Stein, "A writer is someone who cannot not write."

The etymology is from an Indo-European root, meaning "to cut, scratch, sketch an outline".

Examples and Observations

  • "Everyone is a writer. You are a writer. All over the world, in every culture, human beings have carved into stone, written on parchment, birch bark, or scraps of paper, and sealed into letters — their words. Those who do not write stories and poems on solid surfaces tell them, sing them, and, in so doing, write them on the air. Creating with words is our continuing passion." (Pat Schneider, Writing Alone and With Others. Oxford University Press, 2003)
  • "A writer is someone who writes, it's true, but a writer is also someone with a large capacity for adversity. You'll want to cultivate that capacity. Stamina is a writer's first quality." (Bill Roorbach, Writing Life Stories. Writer's Digest, 2000)
  • "We all know it's hard work. Nobody asked any one of us to become a writer. No one will care if you don't become one.
    "No one but you, that is." (George V. Higgins, On Writing. Henry Holt, 1990)
  • "Writers are sentenced to their sentences, which sometimes set them free." (Adam Gopnik, "As Big as the Ritz." The New Yorker, September 22, 2014)

Gushers and Tricklers

"In regard to the work habits of professional authors, Robertson Davies insisted that there are just two kinds of writers, "gushers" and "tricklers." Take a moment to consider which category you fall into.
[James] Thurber was a gusher; for one story which was 20,000 words when finished, he wrote a total of 240,000, and fifteen different versions. It is interesting that the torrential Thurber is the one who talked most about that dread of all writers — drying up....Frank O'Connor was also a gusher; he rewrote some of his stories even after they had been published.
The tricklers may be represented by William Styron, who says: ''I can't turn out slews of stuff each day. I wish I could. I seem to have some neurotic need to perfect each paragraph — each sentence, even — as I go along.'' Dorothy Parker, also a trickler, said: 'I can't write five words but I change seven!'
The industry of the gushers commands respect; Joyce Cary, Frank O'Connor, and [Truman] Capote — we see them writing and revising, rejecting pages by the handful, and finally piecing their work together from the mass. But the tricklers have an agony of their own; they cannot continue until the last line written is as right as they can make it. Both methods seem to take about an equal amount of time." (Robertson Davies, A Voice from the Attic: Essays on the Art of Reading, rev. ed. Penguin, 1990)

A Writing Exercise

"Before you begin writing about your life, I want you to think about how you feel about writing. We all have our personal mythology of what a writer is and does. I want you to write for fifteen minutes to complete the following sentence: A writer is someone who _______.

"Write for fifteen minutes without stopping, letting yourself explore the possibilities. Let go of all your inhibitions and enjoy yourself. Remember to be honest. When you are finished, take a look at what you have written. Did anything surprise you?

"If you are working with a partner, take turns reading what each of you has written and discuss the work." (Janet Lynn Roseman, The Way of the Woman Writer, 2nd ed. Haworth, 2003)

Writers Write

"If you simply define a writer as someone who is writing, clarity sets in. You're truly a writer when you're writing; and if you don't write regularly, don't pretend to give yourself that title. 'Start writing more,' Ray Bradbury tells would-be writers at conferences, 'it'll get rid of all those moods you're having.'" (Kenneth John Atchity, A Writer's Time: Making the Time to Write, rev. ed. W.W. Norton, 1995)

You Are a Writer

"A writer is a writer. You care about writing. It isn't men or women. . . . You sit down, you write, you are not a woman, or an Italian. You are a writer." (Natalia Ginzburg, interviewed by Mary Gordon, "Surviving History." The New York Times Magazine, Marc. 25, 1990)

What Is a Writer Like?

  • "A writer is like a bean plant: he has his little day, and then gets stringy." (attributed to E.B. White)
  • "Being a writer is like being one of those riskily overbred pedigree dogs — a French bulldog, for instance — poorly suited for survival despite their very special attributes. Being a writer is in defiance of Darwin's observation that the more highly specialized a species, the more likelihood of extinction." (Joyce Carol Oates, A Widow's Story: A Memoir. HarperCollins, 2011)
  • "A writer is like a Gypsy. He owes no allegiance to any government. If he is a good writer he will never like the government he lives under. His hand should be against it and its hand will always be against him." (Ernest Hemingway, letter to Ivan Kashkin, Aug. 19, 1935)
  • "Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life." (attributed to Lawrence Kasdan)

The Downside of Being a Writer

"You may have gathered from all this that I am not encouraging people to try to be writers. Well, I can't. You hate to see a nice young person run up to the edge of the cliff and jump off, you know. On the other hand, it is awfully nice to know that some other people are just as nutty and just as determined to jump off the cliff as you are. You just hope they realize what they're in for." (Ursula K. Le Guin, The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. by Susan Wood. Ultramarine, 1980)

"On the whole, professional writers are a lot of whining bastards who wouldn't last a day in a real job...The true mortification of being a writer is having to meet other writers from time to time, and listen to their mundane egotistical rantings." (Duncan McLean, quoted by Jim Fisher in The Writer's Quotebook: 500 Authors on Creativity, Craft, and the Writing Life. Rutgers University Press, 2006)

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Does It Mean to Be a Writer?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/writer-definition-1692511. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). What Does It Mean to Be a Writer? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/writer-definition-1692511 Nordquist, Richard. "What Does It Mean to Be a Writer?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/writer-definition-1692511 (accessed March 24, 2023).